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The art of consensus and compromise in the standards development process

Author : Jim Munro, Chairman, IEC Committee TC31

29 March 2013

About 20 years ago I sat down to chair my first meeting within IEC TC 31.  It was the initial meeting of SC31L: Electrical apparatus for the detection of flammable gases.  I had been chosen for the role because the proposed basis for the new international standards had come from both Europe and USA and they were very different.  

The net had been cast for a country that had some background in developing standards for performance of gas detector which could hopefully provide an informal chair.   At the time I was chairman of the Australian mirror committee of TC 31 (EL014) and Australia had its own standards on gas detectors.

Prior to the meeting, the secretary of SC 31L and I had put quite a deal of work to produce initial drafts of the five standards for discussion based on the two inputs.  Needless to say, I approached the first meeting in Brisbane Australia involving about 20 people from around the world with some nervousness.  The first item to be considered after opening the meeting was the approval of the draft agenda.   I had barely introduced the item when one of those present asked to speak.  He stated that as there was now a ‘Dresden Agreement’ between IEC and the European electrical standards body, CENELEC, which he stated permitted IEC to adopt CENELEC standards, we should just submit the CENELEC standards for vote in IEC.

 Fortunately I was able to convince the meeting that the proposed approach would not be in the spirit of trying to achieve harmonization with particular reference to the differences between Europe and the USA, and the meeting went on.  Ultimately we did publish standards in 1998 that achieved good international acceptance.

I am reminded when thinking of the above about how much the IEC standards development and revision processes have changed over the years.  We don’t do detailed development of standards in formal committee or subcommittee meetings anymore.  But what have not changed are the significantly different positions we have to resolve between different countries, individuals and companies to achieve standards that can be adopted throughout the world without change.  Achieving consensus in the standards development process is never easy.  I am sure any of you who are involved in the process can relate to this situation.

So I plan to use the article to talk about the development process with IEC; the formal mechanisms and the processes used to seek that illusive consensus.  So what is consensus?
Consensus:  A dictionary definition – ‘agreement in the judgement or opinion reached by a group as a whole’.  A former prime minister of Australia once defined it as ‘something that no one really likes but that everyone can live with’.

Consensus: IEC position - requires the resolution of substantial objections, is an essential procedural principle and a necessary condition for the preparation of International Standards that will be accepted and widely used. Although it is necessary for the technical work to progress speedily, sufficient time is required before the approval stage for the discussion, negotiation and resolution of significant technical disagreements.
[subhead] The formal processes

The IEC formal processes are laid out in the ISO/IEC Directives.  The following information is extracted in part from Part 1 of the Directives in Table 1 (Project stages and associated documents):

Project stage                Associated document
                                        Name                    Abbreviation 

Preliminary stage           Preliminary work item                       PWI  
Proposal stage              New work item proposal1)                 NP   
Preparatory stage         Working draft(s)                               WD
Committee stage          Committee draft(s)                             CD
Enquiry stage               Enquiry draft                                      CDV (in ISO/DIS)
Approval stage             Final draft International Standard     FDIS  
Publication stage          International Standard                       ISO, IEC or ISO/IEC

NOTE: Under some circumstances a stage may be omitted.

In the older approach (like in SC 31L) representatives of each national committee (NC) came to committee meetings and worked through the process, including the resolution of comments on issued documents.  Most were able to bring to the table their national position when dealing with comments.

Now, however, the main work tends to be done in working groups, project teams and maintenance teams.  All of these have as their members technical experts appointed directly to the group by their NC.  According to the directives these ‘experts act in a personal capacity and not as the official representative of the P-member’ of the technical committee.   Only the person in charge of the process, variously know as project leader, convenor or rapporteur, is expected to ‘act in a purely international capacity, divesting him- or herself of a national point of view’.  Thus there is no guarantee the output of the group will accurately reflect the position of the relevant NC, even for those with members on the group.  However, it is encourage that experts take account of their national position when participating.
A typical process for a new standard might work as follows:
* An NC raises a new work item (NP) based on a national or regional standard.  Or the work is initiated by the relevant committee or subcommittee.
* The NP is voted on by the P-members of the relevant committee and at that time they are also asked to advise if they would be able to provide an expert to participate in the development work.  Provided there are adequate votes in favour and proposals to provide experts from enough countries the work is approved to proceed.  A project team is established, a project leader appointed and a call for experts issued.
* The NCs appoint members to the project team directly through the IEC Experts’ Management System.  
* An initial meeting is held of the project team presided over by the project leader.
* The outcomes of the process now may depend on how well developed the standard is as provided by the NP is and how complex/political the subject.  
* Perhaps the most critical stage occurs when a committee draft (CD) is issued.  This document goes out to the NCs with a request for comment.  At this stage any form of comment, including technical comments can be made.  
* Further CDs may be necessary.
* Once there is reasonable confidence that the document is unlikely to draw negative votes a committee draft for voting (CDV) is issued for vote and comment.  However, if any comments are or a technical nature it is difficult to incorporate them at the CDV stage.  
* If there are sufficient positive votes on the CDV, the final draft international standard (FDIS) is issued for approval.  This time changes become even more difficult and the focus is on only correcting editorial errors.
* A successful vote on the FDIS sees the new standard being issued.

For revision of a standard the processes are similar, particularly the final stages.  However, in this case there is a maintenance team (MT) formed by the committee or subcommittee which is headed by a convenor.  Quite often now in TC 31, we start the process by issuing the current standard as a document for comment (DC) start the process of getting technical comment as soon as possible.  

The above processes are specific to IEC but harmonised with ISO as shown in the above table.  A slight complication in the above processes is that a subcommittee of TC 31, SC 31M Non-electrical equipment and protective systems also produces ISO and ISO/IEC standards.  These also require voting for approval within ISO.

Achieving Consensus

Some of the ways we have tried to address the achievement of consensus and hence avoiding negative votes are discussed below.

First, we encourage involvement of a range of countries in the relevant groups.  This means they are more likely to have a chance to put their position during group discussions and to support formal comment they have submitted on documents.  Hence, when the document comes out for voting they should be in a position to accept it.  

Secondly, within TC 31, in a document we call our Good Working Practice document, we have a consistent and rigorous way of reporting on how we deal with comments.  This ensures that NCs who have submitted comments can see that they have been carefully considered with a reasoned answer if their proposed change has not been accepted in full. This helps avoid having the same proposals submitted at a later stage in the development/revision process.

Thirdly, we try to allow maximum time for comment where feasible, so countries who do not have good English within its national members can translate the document and the resulting national comments.

As a result of the above processes, guided by a project leader or convenor who is expected to act impartially as noted earlier, our aim is for that person to return to the secretary of the TC 31 committee or subcommittee a document which represents the consensus position of the group.  Where this is has not been achieved, the chairman and secretary of that subcommittee may need to assist in the process of finding a consensus.
We have been pretty successful in the above process in recent years and this in large measure has lead to the acceptance of our TC 31 standards without change in the majority of countries throughout the world using standards for explosive atmospheres.  Unfortunately occasionally the consensus process breaks down but only after our determined efforts to seek consensus.  We will continue to seek ways to minimise the chance of this happening. 

Update on published standards

The following is my regular update on TC 31 standards and associated documents that have been published over the past 12 months; to mid January 2013.  

*IEC 60079-0 Corrigendum 1 - 2012-11 - IEC 60079-0: Explosive atmospheres – Part 0: Equipment – General requirements
*IEC 60079-33 1.0 - 2012-09 - IEC 60079-33: Explosive atmospheres - Part 33: Equipment protection by special protection ‘s’
*IEC 60079-20-1 Corrigendum 1 - 2012-7 - Explosive atmospheres – Part 20-1: Material characteristics for gasand vapour classification – Test methods and data

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